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Pain plus reflection equals progress. - Ray Dalio

Everyone has great ideas about fantastic products that should exist. A lot of people in the startup ecosystem imagine new worlds and alternative realities that we should live in. And they are right! The problem is not necessarily our ideas. The problem that almost all builders fail to overcome is the strategic execution in order to get to that dreamy target destination. This post intents to explain "how you get there".

Let's start by saying that I fell into this particular trap myself in the most hilarious way. At some point I worked on a consumer product idea that intended to allow users to discover certain things on the internet, which was simply not possible at the time. My idea and my web interface were both brilliant. I worked on the complete tech stack all by myself for about 6 months. At the end I had a really nice "MVP" that allowed the user to have the envisioned experience. All built by myself, and it was fun doing it! When I launched my app there was obviously no user to try it out. I knew I had to go over into the bootstrapping phase. And I had a plan to bootstrap a network effect. It was a great plan. And it did something! It did just not do what I expected it to do.

My "go to market" strategy involved a feedback loop with a social network, whose name shall remain undisclosed in order to protect the innocent. For the purpose of our story we will refer to it as "Twitter". I executed my plan and managed a Twitter account for my app for about two days when I realized that this plan did absolutely not work out as intended, and I did also realize why. Over a glass of sweet red wine I am happy to share more details about the story. For now those details are out of scope. One of the reasons my GTM did not work was because there was no meaningful service that just another Twitter account could bring to bear in order to make another human being go like "oh look at this". If you are convinced that your marketing strategy of "just tweet about it" will get you users, just don't! My efforts drowned in the noise of crypto Twitter without achieving anything at all other than making me realize what just happened.

What just happened was multiple things. For one, if approached more diligently and strategically I could have validated the most critical component of my master plan by basically running the twitter account for two days to realize that the whole thing just falls apart. And while my app would work, if only it had a bunch of users to overcome the network effect, I had no viable way of achieving exactly this very important goal. If you take anything away from this post then let it be this. Distribution is everything. How you make people use your product might only be second to the product itself. Another thing to internalize is that your final "heads in the clouds" vision of your super cool product is totally not what you need in order to release it on day one. What you have to understand is that the future vision of your product is something you have to work towards over time while it is being used. That is also why you often hear referrals to that methapor of changing the wings of an airplane during flight. The point is, you need some thing that gets your ass off the ground, and that thing in almost all cases cannot be the perfect vision you are convinced of can compete with Netflix. Look it up. Not even Netflix was like Netflix when it started. And that then also highlights that you need to be fluid in your approach and your expectations. Because what you envision might not be what pays the bills at the end of the day. You might end up pursuing different goals after you got started and realize over time that there is in fact something to work on. That something might just not be what you thought it would be in the first place.

Often I like to explain it this way. When you do the startup thing, you say you want to get from point A to point B. Those two points are distinct and very far apart. There is no straight line connecting those two points. Point A is where you are at, the very beginning, the here and now. Point B is where you want to go, the target destination. The problem we are getting at is this. While a lot of the founders out there can articulate their grand vision of the future somehow, almost all of them miss the way more important detail of how to actually get there. They are climbing the wrong hill, and when Chris says it, it must be true. So most founders do not, and cannot articulate what the very first thing is in order to get the very first user use a product that does not really look like the grand future vision at all. That is the crux of it. We can all agree that bridging the gap conceptually between point A and point B is a whole different challenge. It is hard, it is difficult, it is complex, and most of the time you do not know how to do it.

The reason why nobody can compete with Google, Netflix or Twitter is not that these products are technically difficult to build. It is not the money or desire that stands in the way of pushing Google from the throne. In fact everyone would love that. The reason why it is not happening is because nobody can figure out how to even get into any form of competing position. There is a desert of unprofitability around market leaders, and these deserts are far and wide. Many try to conquer, and all of them starve to death on their way to get there. It's impossibruh! Granted, every empire will fall in time. But that is just not very useful for the mere mortals among us.

In almost all cases, nobody will come if you build it. Nobody. And it may not even be like that because your product sucks. No, it may simply be like that because nobody knows about you and your product. The fact that there are billions of people out there who are all hungry means little to nothing for your geographically constrained restaurant business. Now when I think about a better way of living or a cool product that should exist, one of the first things I try to do is to brainstorm how I would even bootstrap that idea. Often I reach my limits in a short amount of time and realize that I have no thesis for overcoming this or that particular challenge along all of the involved path dependencies between point A and point B. Not even if I had a lot of money to burn. Time and time again I run into powerlaw like forces that do not allow anyone to pass.

Another way of thinking about this strategic execution is the difference between your answer to a question and your way of coming up with that very answer. Admittedly this is a bit meta but maybe that is exactly the point. There is a lower and more fundamental level that we have to get right in order to perform well. Every human being has initial emotional reactions all the time about literally anything. An answer to a problem can come from very different places. And you better make sure that your answers come from a place of rigor and merit, and not just out of your lizard brain. Because if that is the case then all you do is play the sad version of see-no-evil. And that game does generally not end well. To drive the similarity home, your vision for the future is good and great, but if you do not understand how to get there then it's frankly just another meaningless brainfart that probably a thousand other people already had before you. And they all died.

At this point, please allow me to indulge myself in the tangential concept of tarpit ideas. I giggle every time I think about how Dalton and Michael joke about it. Tarpits form in nature due to petroleum leaking through the surface. When they occur they resemble water holes. So much so that animals try to drink from them, and then they die. The vicious cycle here is that the resulting biomass decaying in agony attracts more animals that subsequently share the same deadly fate. Let's translate that to our collective "heads in the clouds" phenomenon. A lot of people did actually already have the same idea about the future that you now come up with as well. The reason why you can now conquer an "empty" market is not so much that you are a genius or the first of your kind. No. The reason nobody is here is because everyone who tried to get here did in fact die due to starvation or intoxication, or both.

Focusing on the bootstrapping problem first and foremost has the advantage that you can basically pretend you do already have built the perfect version of your visionary product and not waste any effort on actually building it. Simply because it is way more important how to get that thing to market than actually building it, given we are not attempting to violate the known laws of physics. Like, pretending to have built a flying car and coming up with a way to sell it is not that hard for the obvious reason that people would love to have a flying car ever since we have non-flying cars. Be real.

Here are some practical ideas on "how to get there". Understand that your answer is not nearly as important as the way you come up with it. Instead of proclaiming "this is how we get there", rather define the problem statement and then derive a plan that can be executed strategically. You will realize there are path dependencies that you have to address, and you have to address them in order. Approaching the bootstrapping problem systematically helps you to truly understand the underlying forces standing in your way. It always helps to write down how to bootstrap your idea. Write it down in simple terms. You have to be able to explain the journey in minute detail. Spoiler alert, this kind of articulation should actually be in any pitch you send my way. The ability to think clearly is critical here. If you want to train your logical thinking, there is a pretty neat protocol you can apply to train exactly that. I found it articulated the first time by Karl Deisseroth in the Andrew Huberman Podcast. The idea is to practice your internal monologue by deliberately spelling out full gramatically accurate sentences in dead silence. Basically, you sit in silence, and try to think in whole sentences. You can think what you want. You can brainstorm your idea, but you need to constrain your articulation to sentences as if you explained your thought to somebody else in the most possible complete form of natural language. This protocol forces you to structure and define your thoughts in a way that is then consumable by other human beings. Applying this protocol repeatedly can improve your ability to articulate ideas well. And I would like to attest to that. Here it is just again that you have to make yourself honest and realize whether you make vague assumptions or draw the wildest conclusions within your thinking for no apparent reason. Talking to people and paying a little bit attention you will realize how everyone just utters opinions based on assumptions all the time. Note the word assumption and its meaning. An assumption is a thing that is accepted as true or as certain to happen, without proof. Sounds good? Well, it shouldn't. Because you cannot simply take your own word for an explanation if you have not addressed its underlying mechanics. Why would you want to take anything for granted if the world is basically against you? Without picking an assumption apart you cannot build your idea on the shaky ground of something that is at best hopefully true. You do not need hope. You need proof in order to make the numbers work in your favour.

And you know, maybe you figure out that your idea doesn't work. And that is ok! You have permission to realize that there is no path forward anymore after trying real hard. You are allowed to change your mind if you indeed have learned something. And it is totally ok to simply walk away and move on. It is a good thing to walk away from a tarpit. Thought it was water. Well, it wasn't. Let's find another opportunity then. It may feel like cutting of a limb. It hurts to walk away after pouring your heart into something for maybe even years on end. On the upside though, it is really great to realize it's maybe just another tarpit, or realize that you can just not do it. And that is better than dying.

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